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How simulation training offers a more true-to-life experience for learning that sticks

The cop-crafted scenarios and varied outcomes offered by VirTra help officers practice making decisions in real time to develop more effective de-escalation tactics

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Simulation training like that offered by VirTra includes variable outcomes, guided by instructors based on the choices trainees make in the moment, to help officers practice decision-making and de-escalation strategies in real time.


Sponsored by VirTra

By Margarita Birnbaum for Police1 BrandFocus

In the wake of high-profile use-of-force incidents that resulted in fatalities and serious injuries, the familiar clamor for better officer training was raised by politicians, community leaders and the public at large. As demonstrations unfolded and riots gripped city after city last summer, Lon Bartel, a retired officer and now director of training and curriculum at VirTra, was among those in public safety openly demanding change.

For years now, Bartel has been among a cadre of use-of-force experts who have repeatedly said teaching de-escalation techniques in the classroom using textbooks, printouts and videos is outdated and ineffective. To help officers become the best they can be, Bartel says, agencies need to use real-life simulation-based training such as VirTra’s immersive scenarios and tools. All VirTra simulators include the comprehensive and nationally-certified V-VICTA program, which exposes officers to reality-based situations they can’t get any other way.

“Law enforcement doesn’t function in a block environment, it’s very dynamic,” he said. “There are lots of decisions you have to make. We have to count on multiple skill sets all at the same time.”

The dozens of scenarios and branches offered in the virtual reality situations allow instructors to assess a wide range of job performance markers, such as an officers’ communication skills, knowledge of use-of-force policies, critical thinking skills, and their ability to keep themselves calm during the stressful, emotionally charged situations they may encounter on the job.


In addition to training on use-of-force techniques to help officers successfully de-escalate volatile and dangerous situations, the V-VICTA program’s integrative curriculum includes modules on the basics of mental illness, the dynamics of substance abuse and how human factors play a role in force encounters. Communication techniques are heavily emphasized.

“As a law enforcement officer, there are times that you absolutely have the authority to order somebody to do something,” said Bartel, a former hostage negotiator. “But people would rather be asked than told to do something. So just the difference in that mindset can really change the interaction.”

VirTra’s de-escalation scenarios cover a range of likely encounters, including questioning someone suspected of theft, a traffic stop for a broken taillight, responding to a dispute between family members, and addressing a loud music complaint. As instructors raise the stakes in those situations, officers learn how to manage their body language, identify the communication styles they need to use and help calm someone down to defuse a tense situation peacefully.

On average, each VirTra scenario includes 85 different decision-making paths, depending on the choices made by the officers in training. And just like in real life, not all situations end well. One possible result of the scenario where officers respond to a call involving teenagers skating on private property – depending on how the officers in training respond – is that officers end up chasing the teens and a shootout breaks out. Fortunately, training with scenarios allows the instructor to re-run the scenario, allowing officers to try different tactics and see how their approach can change a situation.

In addition to communication cues, the simulator can also help officers learn to identify their own blind spots – behaviors and tactics that may cause them to lose focus and lead them to make poor decisions that result in using the wrong force techniques or using excessive force.

“There’s always a psychological component to the choices we make, the words that we use,” Bartel said.


Another key benefit is that V-VICTA is designed according to adult learning principles. The content of the various programs and scenarios is informed by experiences shared by veteran law enforcement experts, therapists and crisis negotiators to offer agencies effective and consistent training. The immersive simulation approach, combined with the judgmental branching scenarios, provides realism that simply can’t be achieved in a traditional lecture environment – even one that incorporates role playing.

Simulation training like that offered by VirTra covers much more than a “shoot/don’t shoot” exercise. The variable outcomes, guided by instructors based on the choices trainees make in the moment, test critical thinking and help officers practice decision-making and de-escalation strategies in real time.

“De-escalation is a proficiency skill,” Bartel said. “With simulation, it’s not telling them how to do it. You have them do it. And that’s why it sticks.”

Visit VirTra for more information on de-escalation training.

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